House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seems to be of two minds.
Pelosi has repeatedly said no to the idea of impeaching President Trump. She gravely warns that Trump is goading the opposition into impeaching him because he sees this as his ticket back to the White House in 2020. Impeachment, he believes, will fire up his base by allowing him to go into full-blown victim mode.
But Pelosi then pivots and says that Trump must be held accountable. That seems to imply that impeachment is still on her agenda.
The question that Pelosi correctly zeroes in on as other Democrats hound her to get the impeachment show on the road is this: Will a House impeachment gambit help or hurt Trump more than it helps or hurts the Democrats?
Polls show that, much like the House of Representatives itself, there are a lot of people who believe impeachment is a bad idea for Democrats. Polls also show that independents, who will be a big factor in the presidential election, also don’t really like the idea, even though a lot of them don’t like Trump.
Trump can take his cues from what happened with President Bill Clinton. Clinton was impeached by the then-GOP-controlled House, but the then-Democrat-controlled Senate didn’t convict, and Clinton’s popularity numbers soared. If Clinton could have run for a third term in 2000 he almost certainly would have been re-elected.
The issue must be framed this way for two practical reasons. One, impeachment will be almost exclusively a Democratic show in the House, since almost no House Republicans would ever back the effort. The other reason is that the GOP-controlled Senate would never vote to convict. So, if it’s a strictly partisan effort, it comes off as nothing more than a political stunt, or at best an empty gesture done purely to satisfy progressive Democrats.
But what about the Democrats who hail from districts populated by anything but progressives? More than a handful of new House Democrats come from those districts, which are full of Republicans, independents, and centrist Democrats who want nothing to do with an impeachment move by their representatives. Such a battle would cause undue strain and give the GOP an opening to take back some of the seats they lost in 2018.
However, here’s the reason why Pelosi is walking a tightrope on impeachment. A compelling case can be made that going after Trump with impeachment will energize Democrats. But would it actually do that? This is not a small concern, given that the Democratic presidential candidate field is way overloaded, with all of them struggling to find a unifying message that will stir enough Democrats to storm the polls in 2020. Is impeachment, with Democrats showing they aren’t afraid to fight for a principle despite the risks, that message?
Pro-impeachment Democrats got a big boost when Special Counsel Robert Mueller implied that Trump had committed crimes, and that if not for the legal constraints of going after a sitting president he could have been indicted. Mueller punted but in the process practically invited Congress to go after Trump through the only means at its disposal, and that’s impeachment. At least, that’s the way a lot of Democrats are reading Mueller’s report, Pelosi among them. This is what’s behind her saying that he must be held accountable. But does being held accountable mean impeachment?
The best bet for Democrats is booting Trump out of the White House at the polls. It won’t be easy. He will have a united GOP behind him, a king’s ransom in campaign cash, the fawning attention of mainstream media, his Twitter bully pulpit, and the appearance of a bustling economy to crow about. The worst thing to do now is to give him yet another weapon. Clearly Trump sees impeachment as that weapon. Many Democrats don’t. But if they’re wrong, it will help re-elect him.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and author of “The Impeachment of President Trump?” (Amazon Kindle). He is a weekly co-host of “The Al Sharpton Show” on Radio One and host of the weekly “Hutchinson Report” on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.